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Marriage in the ‘New’ America: A Pandemic, Equality, and an Industry Ready for Change

An exploration of what weddings and marriage mean to today's couples, according to the 2020 Brides American Wedding Study.

At Brides, weddings are kinda our thing—and they have been since our beginnings in 1934. Over the past 86 years, it’s no secret that what weddings look like and, more importantly, what they mean, has changed a lot. Which is why, since 2013, we’ve conducted an annual American Wedding Study to examine the state of weddings in the U.S. in real-time. 

This year, however, we set about our analysis with new intentions. We wanted to look beyond the big day and really address the obvious: Why and how today's couples say “I do” is more complex than ever. To better understand, we surveyed more than 1,400 American newlyweds of varying races, ages, income brackets, geographical locations, and sexual orientations.

Then, COVID-19 changed our plans. Our formal poll closed in March, and ever since, we've been getting an influx of reader comments about COVID-19 changing your wedding plans (we even created a new column about it!). So, in September, we made a quick pivot in our survey to address how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our readers' perceptions and plans.

As a result, what began as a study of what weddings and marriage actually mean to couples in 2020 suddenly became an examination of how a world-altering event—and its ramifications on health, finance, culture, and relationships—impacts such ideals.

COVID-19: The Ultimate Wedding Crasher

covid couple
Photo by Adriana Rivera; Art by CRISTINA CIANCI

The pandemic has profoundly and, in some ways, irrevocably altered every aspect of our lives. And that includes marriage. For many, it seems that “for better or for worse” and “in sickness and in health” have taken on a whole new meaning.

This has been a hot topic for our Instagram followers, who have been coming to us for the latest advice (we've been doing Q&As with top industry experts since March) and inspiration—but also to engage with fellow 'corona couples.' Knowing this, we went straight to them to better understand their current views on getting married during a global health crisis. Below, what we learned from the more than 4,000 followers who responded to our call-out.

Uncertain Times Make for Stronger Commitments

Fifty-five percent of our followers say that the pandemic has changed their expectations for marriage. And, according to many of them, the worldwide disruption has them ruminating on the true meaning of their vows and prioritizing partnership above all.

  • “It’s made me understand how much you have to work on your relationship to see it succeed.” -@Kgruhn
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CRISTINA CIANCI

Even more, it seems that these uncertain times have somehow brought about a new level of certainty when it comes to couples’ commitment to one another. Eighty-two percent report that living through the pandemic has actually made them want to marry more and weather this, and any other storm, together.

  • "We don’t know when or how this will end. Being together is the most important thing right now." -@Shainamania
  • “Marriage is for better or worse. Life doesn’t wait till the knot is tied to make you learn that.” -@Amtumolo

The Big Question: Is The Wedding Worth The Wait?

If you’ve had to make the cheerless choice to postpone your wedding due to the pandemic, take comfort in the fact that you’re at least not alone: 66 percent of respondents have made the difficult decision to postpone their 2020 wedding.

  • “Having our people with us is most important. Can't sacrifice that for a calendar date!” -@Deedrah
  • "We want a large fun party, and we aren't willing to settle for less."-@Chelsiedaugherty
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CRISTINA CIANCI

But, according to many, being forced to adopt a more flexible attitude towards their wedding—a day they’ve envisioned a certain way and painstakingly planned—is rarely easy. And postponing a wedding is never a simple decision, especially when there are no guarantees. 

  • “Even my postponed wedding feels precarious. Will we have to push again?” -@Nvidutis

However, many couples are choosing to focus on what they can guarantee themselves: It may not have been the wedding they originally planned, yet 36 percent still said “I do” during the pandemic, with many now-newlyweds hoping to host a larger celebration once restrictions are lifted.

  • “COVID-19 stole my reception—I didn’t want it to have my wedding date, too. So, we eloped!” -@Gingerysnap33

Elopements, Micro Weddings, and the Era of Social Distancing

Eighty-one percent of our followers say the pandemic has changed their expectations for their wedding—a fact that's not surprising since weddings as we know them haven't been allowed to happen for most of this year.

Dramatically pared-down guest lists, friends, and family celebrating via Zoom, intimate elopements, and city hall civil ceremonies are amongst the most popular ways to say “I do” during COVID-19, according to both our followers and the wedding planning pros.

  • "Life is short! Nothing is certain, and we were ready to take that next step no matter how it happened!" -@Cowgirlzag
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Wedding planner Fallon Carter of Fallon Carter Events says she’s been busy planning small-scale ceremonies and uniquely intimate events in couples' backyards and close-to-home destinations, in lieu of the big blow-out bashes she’s used to orchestrating.

"We’re planning what we’re calling double whammies, smaller weddings now and larger weddings moving forward," she says. "This year, the weddings are mini, micro celebrations for couples who are saying, 'Let’s make the most of this pandemic and actually get married!'"

What Is a Micro Wedding?

Micro weddings are intimate nuptials, typically with no more than 50 guests. These celebrations usually include the same traditions as larger weddings, just on a much smaller scale.

For many, the micro wedding is enough. "Some are even satisfied with the micro—it’s not as much pressure, and they don’t have to wrap their mind around what the world will look like in the future," she adds. And these stripped-down ceremonies are revealing what’s at the very heart of it all:

  • “It doesn’t matter the place or how many guests you have. It’s the love you share that day.” -@Jackie.frndz22

Through this experience, Carter says she has seen couples' love on full display. On the wedding day, they are spending more time on the ceremony, focusing on the wording of their vows and making sure their families feel extra special.

"Now, there’s literally a pandemic in front of you, so, if you want to get married, you have to push through the barrier and find a way to gather your loved ones. It’s been fun to see people take that extra step to make sure their guests feel safe and comfortable," she says. "The people who are doing this are truly meant to be together."

Millennials Really Do Believe in Marriage

millenial couple
Photo Courtesy of Unsplash; Art by CRISTINA CIANCI

To whoever said millennials were too cynical for love, we’d like a word! Sixty-nine percent of newlyweds from our national survey—particularly millennials, urbanites, and those who saw lasting commitment in their parents’ marriages—say they’ve always wanted to get married.

But it’s not only all the expected fuzzy feelings that factor into this decision to wed. In fact, 89 percent of newlyweds hold the belief that tying the knot will actually take their relationship to the next level, specifically citing the effects of certain social advantages and expectations.

“While we often think of it as a private decision between two people, marriage plays many public functions as well,” says Kristin Celello, Ph.D., history professor at Queens College and author of "Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States."

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As it happens, 64 percent of newlyweds believe marriage can “legitimize” a relationship, with the expectation that getting hitched will make others respect them more. “Marriage is still widely seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, which therefore might garner you more respect,” adds Dr. Celello.

But the biggest reason why couples wed is no surprise at all. Forty percent of newlyweds surveyed cite L-O-V-E as their main motive. The second biggest marriage motivator? Twenty-two percent say it's the belief that their partner brings out the best in them.

Marriage Equality Five Years Later: Is The Wedding Industry Doing Enough?

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Photo Courtesy of Stocksy; Art by CRISTINA CIANCI

The journey to the altar is never the same for anyone, and it’s been historically more difficult for same-sex couples. It was not until June 26, 2015, that Obergefell v. Hodges ruled that same-sex couples are guaranteed the fundamental right to marry, formally recognizing the rights and privileges of marriage in all states and between all states.

How Do Our Newlyweds Identify?

In our study, we asked each respondent to share the gender they identify with, as well as how their spouse identifies. If the genders were the same, we refer to them below as “same-gender newlyweds." If the genders were different, we refer to them as “different-gender newlyweds."

In our study, nearly one in four same-gender newlyweds say that they never wanted to marry prior to meeting their partners—a number that can, perhaps, be attributed to the fact that it was only recently legalized across the United States. However, just five years later, 74 percent of same-gender newlyweds now say they see marriage as necessary for a fulfilling life (almost 10 percent more than different-gender newlyweds who do).

“Many LGBTQ+ couples are happily reclaiming the words marriage and wedding, which, in the U.S., have been historically and pointedly used by conservative and religious groups to justify continued homophobia and marginalization,” explains Emily Gaikowski, creative director and owner of Heartthrob Weddings and Events, an LGTBQ+-inclusive wedding planning company. “Now that same-sex marriage is legal, same-sex couples are fully seeing themselves as part of a traditional gathering that hasn't always been ingrained in their subconscious.”

Respect: The Gift Worth Giving 

While you wouldn’t find it on any wedding registry, our study shows that same-gender newlyweds expect more social and familial respect once they've tied the know—once again, even more so than different-gender newlyweds, with 73 percent believing marriage will make people respect them more and 67 percent expecting more autonomy within their families. 

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Deborah Merrill, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Clark University and author of "When Your Gay or Lesbian Child Marries: A Guide for Parents," explains that marriage can be seen as the ultimate validation of a relationship to those outside of it.

“It is one of the markers of adulthood. It verifies to family that you are capable of a long-term relationship and that someone else loves you enough to select you as their life partner and legal spouse," she says.

This certainly rings true for Aaron and Carter Hahnselle. “When my husband and I met, we fell in love hard and fast. At that time, in 2010, we weren’t able to get legally married in the state of California, which was a bummer, because we both wanted the same things that many heterosexual couples desire—marriage, kids, a so-called ‘normal’ family life," Aaron explains. "Both of our parents have been great examples of long-lasting relationships and we wanted to embark on the same journey when the timing was right.”

When my husband and I met, we fell in love hard and fast. At that time, in 2010, we weren’t able to get legally married in the state of California, which was a bummer, because we both wanted the same things that many heterosexual couples desire—marriage, kids, a so-called ‘normal’ family life.

In March 2019, the couple said "I do" surrounded by friends and family in New Orleans, and at the end of the ceremony, they introduced a new shared surname: Hahnselle, a combination of their last names. “Don’t feel handcuffed by tradition,” they advise to other couples planning. “Fill it with all the magic and glitter.”

Open Arms for the Non-Traditional

As the Hahnselles demonstrate, same-gender couples are less likely to partake in old-school traditions—only 36 percent ceremoniously cut their wedding cake, while 61 percent of different-gender newlyweds did. And, in general, same-gender couples don’t skimp on the guest list or personal touches.

“In my experience as both an LGBTQ+ planner and a queer person, same-sex couples accumulate a massive chosen family over the years of their relationship,” Gaikowski shares. "I find many of my LGBTQ+ couples to be very inclusive, and have friends and family from all walks of life and want to open their guest list up to as many people as they can.” 

What Is A Buddymoon?

A buddymoon is a post-wedding trip or getaway in which the newlyweds invite friends and/or family members to join in the celebration.

Inclusive, travel-orientated experiences are especially popular among same-gender couples, with ‘buddymoons’ being a favored feature. “I've found my couples put a lot of thought into the elements of the ceremony and the personal details,” says Gaikowski, who views the ‘buddymoon’ trend as yet another reclaiming of historically gendered wedding events such as girls-only bridal showers or bachelor party weekends. Replacing those elements with “a buddy trip to Italy or other non-segregated activity welcomes both sides of the wedding party,” she explains.  

buddymoon
 CRISTINA CIANCI

Actually, the Hahnselles’ epic joint bachelor party in Palm Springs illustrates this very point: “After nine years of being together, our friend groups had merged and it was the perfect way to celebrate together. Doing separate bachelor parties would have been weird,” Hahnselle says. 

And given the popularity of such large-scale wedding plans, it’s no surprise that 77 percent of same-gender newlyweds say they were highly involved in the wedding planning details.

“There is something so special about the planning process of an LGBTQ+ wedding,” Gaikowski says. “So much of LGBTQ+ weddings are intentional and meaningful and often without the many traditional 'bride and groom' pressures and roles, giving both parties a chance to equally contribute creatively.” 

Roadblocks Still Exist But We Can Do Better

It's important to note that all this doesn’t mean planning comes easy. Same-gender newlyweds are 10 percent more likely than different-gender newlyweds to say that wedding planning was a challenge, whether it being downright homophobia, the use of gendered language, or a lack of inspirational and informational resources as culprits.  

“The largest challenge is discrimination from vendors,” explains Waning Moon Weddings's LaToya Papillion-Herr, a New Orleans-based officiant who specializes in creating LGBTQ+, non-denominational, civil, multi-faith, secular, and spiritual ceremonies. “Others would be a lack of representation in wedding imaging, vendors failing to create affirming experiences, and overall limited accessibility to inclusive resources.” 

At Brides, we recognize our responsibility as a leader in the wedding industry, and we've made a commitment to ensure that all voices and celebrations are represented on Brides.com. So, how can we as a whole do better? As both an industry and community, we can start by addressing the challenges outlined below.

Vendor Resources: “We need more resources for LGBTQ+ couples to turn to in terms of vendors," Hahnselle says. "There’s nothing worse than reaching out to a vendor only to realize they do not care to be a part of your special day, because of your sexual orientation.” Gaikowski also encourages visibility in her fellow LGTBQ+ vendors: “If you are an LGBTQ+ vendor, and it's safe for you to do so, please let your light shine!”

Affirmative Language: Gaikowski recalls being told of a DJ who mistakenly announced a pair of brides’ grand entrance by welcoming the ‘bride and groom.’ “It feels really awful to give a vendor thousands of dollars, only to have them misgender you or gloss over important parts of your identity and relationship,” she says. Hahnselle, who also works as an event producer and designer in Los Angeles, adds that this also happens to couples behind-the-scenes. “The industry also needs to veer away from assuming inquiries are from heterosexual couples," he says. "I received several contracts from our wedding vendors that listed the 'bride and groom' for signature. Vendors should be sensitive to this, and be sure to change contract language prior to sending.” 

Equitable Representation: “Leading wedding agencies, platforms, and professionals have to be vocal about the trend of heterosexual (and white)-centered wedding inspiration, traditions, and imaging,” Papillion-Herr explains. “Doing this will allow for honest communication, education, and growth that invites LGBTQ+ couples to the discussion and shows dedication to shifting the current narrative of weddings. It is hard for couples to feel that they are deserving of a grand celebration when they do not see themselves celebrated on a grand scale.” 

Men Dream About Their Weddings, Too

grooms
Photo Courtesy of Unsplash; Art by CRISTINA CIANCI

You know the age-old stereotype of grooms just being along for the ride? Not as accurate as you might’ve thought. Here’s an unexpected-yet-totally-welcome discovery: Men really (like, really) care about weddings—and marriage, for that matter.

The Big Day: An Occasion for Self-Expression

In looking at different-gender relationships, in particular, we found that men are more likely to say their single most important reason for having a wedding is that they ‘dreamed about it’ for much of their lives. Thirty-two percent of men see the big day as a lifelong dream, while 27 percent of women say the same.

The specifics of those wedding dreams might also come as a surprise. Men, even more so than women, tend to focus on making the wedding unique. In general, they believe it should be reflective of who they are, both as individuals and as a couple. (We couldn't agree more—that's what our real weddings are all about!) Forty-four percent see incorporating special hobbies and interests as a priority, while more than 40 percent also want to celebrate social, political, and religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds.

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Guys also seemingly want a bash that’s fit for the Instagram grid. Yep—it’s men that care about making the celebration ‘grammable, with 40 percent asserting its importance (compared to 27 percent of women).

And It’s Not Just Weddings Men Value

To men, marriage matters in a major way. In fact, 73 percent say they've always wanted to get married. In our study, men marrying women were also more likely to think marriage is beneficial for society. Large numbers held beliefs about how marriage supports society, saying marriage makes society more stable or that children are better off with married parents.

According to our findings, the majority of men also anticipate personal growth and independence from being with their partner, with 86 percent stating the belief that being married will make them more of an adult and 75 percent expecting an increase in societal respect and autonomy once they say “I do.”

Historically, men have benefited more from marriage than have women, both professionally and emotionally.

And, as it turns out, this expectation isn’t unfounded. “Historically, men have benefited more from marriage than have women, both professionally and emotionally,” Dr. Celello explains. “This is particularly true if parenthood follows marriage. Many businesses, even in the 21st century, believe married men are the most reliable and driven employees, whereas there is still distrust of married women, which stems from the misogynistic concern of female employees leaving the workforce once they become pregnant or prioritizing their children over their work." 

Moreover, the career advancement of men has often and largely benefitted from the domestic labor of women. Specifically, with traditional gender roles sanctioning that women provide childcare, men have historically been able to dedicate more time to the workforce—or were at least seen as having the ability to do so by employers.

Looking Ahead: Weddings in 2021 and Beyond

covid couple
Photo by Amy Anaiz; Art by CRISTINA CIANCI

What will weddings look like in the year ahead?! Admittedly, we're not entirely sure. Carter, a New York City-based wedding planner, says her clients are changing their plans through next spring—a fact our Instagram followers know all too well as they, too, are continuing to adjust party plans into 2021.

On The Wedding Day, Less Is More

Even now, the pandemic has affected our followers' wedding visions: Many say that they have adjusted their priorities when it comes to the specific characteristics of their special day. For some, details such as the aesthetics are no longer as important.

Instead, simply being able to safely celebrate with friends and family, and their guests’ enjoyment of the day, are now of top priority. "Moving forward, couples will prioritize the essentials when it comes to their celebration," Carter says. "They will be more focused on who is in the room instead of what is in the room."

  • “We went ahead and got legally married, so now it’s just about having everyone be there.” -@Sunnysealion
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Thanks to COVID-19, 47 percent of our followers are now planning on downsizing their guest lists. While unfortunate, there's also a silver lining. "With more intimate celebrations, couples will have the ability to take advantage of dream venues and splurge on elevated menu options and design details," Carter says. "In my opinion, an intimate wedding provides a better setting for couples to feel the love of their family."

Interestingly, some couples postponing are not letting the delay stop them from going big: 26 percent of couples postponing are also planning to spend more.

  • "We may splurge on fun things we cut before because we have time to save for it and we earned it!" -@Kelsey.lisabeth
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After a Year of Upheaval, A Reminder of What's Everlasting

Some things never change: 87 percent of followers say they're sticking with their original wedding attire. Another constant? Twenty-three percent are still hoping to wed in a destination wedding. Next year, Carter predicts a rise in outdoor wedding venues and domestic destinations that are within driving distance or a train ride away.

And at the center of it all still lies one principal wedding detail—why the overwhelming majority of all newlyweds surveyed wish to marry in the first place—and that’s to celebrate the love they share. As Brides follower Nora Amalie Aadé says, “Nothing can stop love. A big party doesn’t mean the world to us—our love for each other does.”

Methodology

For the 2020 American Wedding Study, Brides partnered with cultural anthropologists and researchers at Kresnicka Research & Insights to design and field an online quantitative survey, while ensuring representation across gender, region, and race/ethnicity, in late February of 2020. In September, Brides fielded questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic to @Brides Instagram followers.

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